Note: Venus Equilateral is more correctly a series of novelettes which may be bound in one or more volumes. The edition which I’m reading and reviewing is the second printing of The Complete Venus Equilateral with introduction by Arthur C. Clarke. (In which he admits that this series may have primed his mind for his eventual contribution to the communications satellite)
Written in the 1940s, Venus Equilateral focuses on the adventures of the crew of the titular space station, orbiting at one of Venus’s libration points in order to relay communication when the sun or its radio output make direct interplanetary communication impossible.
The book is definitely hard sci-fi, which lends it a very interesting flavor, over half a century later (Think “digging up ancient martian vacuum tubes and using oddly-shaped cogs to aim directional antennas so teletype messages can be sent to ships in transit”) but if you don’t mind the technobabble, it lends the stories a very interesting flavor. (Think “Sherlock Holmes”, which was also written in the contemporary style of a period now gone)
The series starts off a bit slow, but just continues to get better and better and, by doing it this way, both the villains and the more fantastic elements of the technology base can be built, grow, and change as you watch. In fact, it reminds me of the Ed stories or, in a more abstract fashion, the feel of some of the steampunk settings I’ve run across.
Each novelette follows a fairly simple formula: Some kind of conflict occurs (eg. a disaster happens, a villain schemes, etc.), some technological advancements have been kicking around, and through grit, innovation, and much technobabble and tablecloth-scribbling, the brilliant oddballs at Venus Equilateral save the day. (For example, when their boss is on a ship that gets hit by a meteor and signals VE for a rescue by turning the central well of the ship into a giant cathode-ray tube)
One especially refreshing example is how, when they eventually start developing matter transmission/replication technology à la Star Trek, the problems they encounter actually make sense as three-dimensional, material versions of electronic input/output problems television engineers of the day encountered, rather than technobabble with no real meaning. There’s something to be said for having an author knowledgeable enough to shrink the actual matter-conversion down to something that can be an infallible black box without the reader caring.
It gets even better when, thanks to the aforementioned technology, you then get to watch, as it happens, the side-effects of all material things (including currency) becoming infinitely duplicable and valueless in a 40s-inspired society… without the ending being some kind of stupid, irritating Aesop’s fable about how progress is evil. (In fact, on the philosophical side, the story in question, “Pandora’s Millions”, feels better than a lot of what authors write on the topic today, over 60 years later.)
The technical side of that particular short could’ve been better, but given that the author lacked knowledge of various other details that fall under the aegis of physics (like the feasibility of two-way communication with a space probe like Voyager 1) that’s easy to excuse as yet another artifact of when the stories were written.
All in all, a very fun read and something I’d highly recommend. Aside from the female characters being supporting cast only (something that really stands out to me now, but is unsurprising for the 40s), it could be a brilliant piece of retro sci-fi written today. 5 out of 5 stars.